What’s Raku?

I get asked that a lot, “What’s raku?” Most people outside of clay artists or collectors have never heard of Raku, or have a very vague understanding of what, exactly, it is.

Raku ware was first developed in Japan over 400 years ago and was favored by the Zen Buddhist Monks. It was preferred by the Masters because of its
humility, tasteful unpretentiousness, simple naturalness, and its deliberate avoidance of luxury; all very important to the Zen philosophy. It is believed that Raku was first developed by Chojiro, founder of the first generation of the Raku dynasty, in the 16th century. It is believed that Chojiro’s tea bowls were brought to the attention of the Emperor Hideyoshi, who was very impressed with the unpretentious and aesthetically pleasing wares. As a result, the Emperor bestowed, in memory of Chojiro, a gold seal that bore the emblem symbolizing “Raku” on Chojiro’s son, Jokei.

The word “Raku” comes from the ideograph engraved on that gold seal. “Raku” when freely and loosely translated can mean joy, enjoyment, pleasure, comfort, happiness, or contentment. The word “Raku” thereby became Chojiro’s family name/title.

The raku firing method utilizes a rapid rise in temperature in a fuel-fired kiln, combining the elements of earth, air, fire, and sometimes water for stunning, one-of-a-kind results. I was drawn to raku immediately because of the unpredictability of working with fire and the uniqueness of each piece. Because I grew tired of the raku glazes I had access to, I began experimenting with colors, which soon became paintings. The result — the merging of the raku firing technique with painted surfaces — is my own distinct art form rooted in ancient tradition but with contemporary appeal. Here is a photo tour of my process:

I start by throwing each piece on a potter's wheel. When it is leather-hard, I trim a foot into the bottom and let it dry for a few days.

I draw the design, usually a landscape or botanical image, on the dry piece with pencil. Sometimes I use photo references, especially for commissions, but typically I work from memory.

Then I start painting with underglaze (liquid, tinted clay). The finished painting looks much darker than it does at this stage, so I estimate what the colors will look like as I go.

The painting is finished.

The painted vase is then bisque fired to about 1900 degrees in an electric kiln. As you can see, the colors are darker already.

The bisqued piece is glazed with a clear crackle glaze and fired in this raku kiln located at my good friend Ben's studio.

Here is the kiln in mid-fire with Ben. He's my model for this.

The temperature is gauged by sight and by 07 cones. This cone is melting which means the kiln has reached temperature (about 1835 degrees) and the firing is complete.

When the glaze is mature, after it's bubbled and laid down again, the glowing pot is taken out of the kiln with tongs and placed in a trash can with saw dust. (Notice how Ben's glowing to... that kiln is hot!)

The flaming trash can is covered to create a reduction (oxygen-deprived) environment. The smoke and fire cause the unglazed parts of the vase to turn matte black. The pot is left in the can to cool for at least 25 minutes.

The cooled, fired piece inside the can.

This is what the fired piece looks before it's cleaned. The carbon on the surface is washed off with soap and water or a scrubbing device if it's really dark.

And here is the cleaned, finished piece! Thanks for touring.

2 thoughts on “What’s Raku?

  1. Pingback: Production Mania « Live Clay

  2. Pingback: May Flowers « Live Clay

Talk to me! I spend too much time alone in the studio.

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